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Is there a way to add a short description in a list header so users understand exactly what the purpose of a list is?

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It is not possible right now. You can send an email to feature-ideas@trello.com to propose this feature. – magnetik Aug 25 '12 at 8:42

Card lists don't have a separate description, just the title.

However, the title can be quite long, if long enough it will automatically split over multiple lines, expanding the header so it isn't truncated.

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